Almost all packaged foods have a label that lists nutritional information and ingredients. To make better food choices you need to be able to decipher this important information. Believe me; they (junk food manufacturers disguising their product as healthy) make the label difficult to understand in order to confuse you. Below is the basic breakdown of food label terminology, what it means and some tips to save you from buying a product loaded with junk.
Here is how each food label breaks down:
Serving Size: Serving sizes are based on the amount of the given food product that the manufacturer estimates a person over the age of four will eat during one sitting. This method does not, of course, take into account an individual’s size, activity level, and so on – all of which will influence his or her true serving requirements or eating propensities.
Be aware that the serving size listing can be manipulated to make a food seem healthier, or perhaps we should say, less harmful, than it really is. For example, for foods that are highly caloric, a manufacturer could list an unrealistically small serving size (such as fewer than 10 potato chips as a “serving”) in order to make servings appear lighter in calories and therefore healthier. In short, one “serving” does not typically reflect the entirety of what is contained in a package or container, and you could easily eat four or five portions of an item before realizing your mistake. I know I have done this myself on several occasions!
Calories and Calories from Fat: The quantity of energy (measured in calories) and nutrients (measured in grams) that a serving of food contains are noted on the food label. Also listed is the amount of fat contained in a single serving (shown both as grams and as calories).
I consider the prominent listing of “calories from fat” to be the red herring of the food label, since it implies that you should consider fat content, but not the calories derived from either sugars or carbohydrates in a particular food. Of course you should pay attention to fat content—and especially the source of fats and oils—but don’t forget about the importance of understanding the enormous role that carbohydrates will play in your weight loss success. The bottom line is, if an item is high in calories, it will usually also contain a lot of sugar and carbohydrates. Be suspicious of such items.
Nutrients: This section lists the daily amount of each nutrient in the food package, such as fat, trans fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and so on. Each item will almost always be in bold and listed on the left hand side of the label.
These daily values are reference numbers that are set by the government and are based on its current nutritional recommendations. These recommended amounts are typically based on a daily diet consisting of 2,000 calories total. However, not everyone eats (or in some cases, needs to eat) 2,000 calories per day, every day. Remember, it is the quality – not quantity – of calories that really counts.
The listing of “% Daily Value” reflects how much of the recommended daily quantity of a given nutrient is contained in a single serving, based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. For example, on the chicken soup label, it states that one serving provides “3%” of the daily value. In other words, it provides three percent of all of the sodium you are recommended to consume for that day, as estimated by the government’s guidelines.
The only vitamins and minerals required to be listed on all food labels are vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron.
Ingredients: The ingredients of each product are usually listed on the food label. Sometimes the ingredients will be listed on the nutrition label, but they may also be on a separate label. Ingredients are listed from largest to smallest amount by weight. This means that the first ingredient listed is present in the largest quantity, and the final ingredient is present in the smallest quantity.
A long list of ingredients is usually a red flag to avoid the food product, especially if you only recognize or can pronounce a minority of the ingredients listed. Also avoid food products that don’t list any ingredients at all.
Below are some of the most common label claims that the federal government allows manufacturers to print on their food packaging. I have also listed the real (i.e., legal and practical) meaning of these statements. Food manufacturers only have to meet these basic requirements (shown on the right) in order to make each claim (listed in boldface):
Fat-free or sugar-free: Less than 0.5 gram (g) of fat or sugar per serving.
Low fat: 3g of fat or less per serving.
Reduced fat or reduced sugar: At least 25 percent less fat or sugar per serving than a comparable food item.
Cholesterol free: Less than 2 milligrams (mg) cholesterol and 2g or less of saturated fat per serving.
Reduced cholesterol: At least 25 percent less cholesterol and 2g or less of saturated fat per serving.
Calorie free: Less than 5 calories per serving.
Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving.
Light or lite: 1/3 fewer calories or 50 percent less fat than a serving of comparable food item.
A 2010 article in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior noted that nutrition marketing, (using a health claim to market a food product) is commonly used on products that are high in saturated fat, sodium and/or sugar. It is also used more frequently on child-centric products than those aimed at adults.
The 2005 to 2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey noted that American adults who review food labels reported healthier nutrient consumption than non-label readers. I never purchase a food item without first looking at the label. When you do, you will soon notice that food packages proclaiming health benefits often contain very unhealthy ingredients – something you will be able to deduce from the label.
Of course, you should still check the labels of so-called “healthy” foods. You may be surprised to discover that such items frequently have very high quantities of carbohydrates or sugar per serving.
Basic Label Rules to Live By
- Avoid foods containing any trans fat.
- Avoid foods with long ingredient lists.
- Avoid foods with lots of artificial and added chemicals.
- Avoid foods that have large amounts of added sugar, including sucrose, glucose, white sugar, maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup, etc.
- Avoid foods that contain artificial sweeteners.
- Avoid foods that have soy as an ingredient. Most soy additives come from genetically modified (GMO) soy plants.
- Avoid packaged foods with dramatic health claims on the label(s).
- Buy foods without labels (veges, nuts, seeds, fruit, grass fed beef…I think you get the point).
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